Lucky number Seven

REMEMBER my piece from a couple of months ago about how I'd always wanted to drive a Lotus Seven ever since seeing 1960s TV classic The Prisoner? Well, I'm pleased to report that I have now ticked that item off my 'to do' list, and that the car was every bit as thrilling to drive as I'd hoped.

I visited Chris Wilson at Se7ens Car Hire HQ in Ballynure earlier this month and spent a hugely enjoyable lunch hour taking their Exocet Red Caterham Seven for a spin up the coast road on what was a particularly sunny, humid afternoon – ideal conditions for open-top motoring.

Once Chris had introduced me to their car, a Roadsport model powered by a tuned 1.6l Ford Sigma lump putting out around 150hp, and fitted me out with a pair of Sparco race boots – standard issue for all Se7ens Car Hire customers along with a snack pack of locally sourced drinks and treats – it was time to slip into the Seven's snug yet surprisingly comfy cockpit.

Their car's padded leather seats are definitely a welcome bum-friendly upgrade from the hard Tillett racing buckets a lot of these machines are equipped with, though you do still get a proper four-point racing harness with them. Pro tip: make sure you adjust all your mirrors properly before strapping in and setting off, otherwise you'll soon be pulling over again.

The Caterham's clutch and short throw five-speed box proved surprisingly easy to get along with and I was soon flying up through the gears along the A8 towards the Coast Road – at the prescribed speed limit, naturally – with the sweet roar of that Ford engine in my ears, the wind in my hair and a big stupid grin plastered across my face. I may also have been humming Ron Grainer's Prisoner theme to myself like an idiot.

While the Seven's detachable Momo racing wheel is comically small and incredibly direct (try not to sneeze at high speed, whatever you do), it's a little odd not being able to see your feet on the pedals in an unfamiliar car and the indicators are controlled by a simple toggle switch on the dash that needs to be manually 'cancelled', the Caterham is really no more difficult to get to grips with than a humdrum hire car – but definitely a hell of a lot more fun.

Unsurprisingly, you're guaranteed to attract attention while driving. The Seven looks like a proper racing car of the sort you don't often encounter passing through Larne on a Wednesday afternoon, so heads were turning, children were excitedly pointing and the occasional horn was tooted in appreciation, all of which just added to the smiles-per-miles factor as the Coast Road appeared and the salty smell of the ocean wafted enticingly into the open cabin.

What a car in which to cruise one of the world's great scenic seaside drives. Before long I was through the famous Black Arch – dropping the clutch a little to better appreciate the Seven's sweet exhaust note, naturally – and headed to Drains Bay, then out past The Maidens, around the corner to Ballygally and onwards to Whitebay where I finally had to pull in, turn around and head back to Se7ens HQ. But not before hopping out to snap a couple of pics for posterity, of course.

I cannot recommend the Caterham experience enough to car lovers, especially those who have only ever driven automobiles equipped with umpteen electronic sensors and safety systems. Once you've finally piloted something raw, real and alive like the Seven, which only weighs around 500kg and is essentially just an engine with four wheels and a couple of seats attached to it, you'll find it hard to go back to the assisted living of modern motoring.

Certainly, after handing over the Seven's keys, my trip home from Ballynure felt a bit like driving in slow motion. I cannot wait to get a longer loan of the car this summer – and, with Chris currently working on some sweet package deals involving overnight hotel stays in popular tourist destinations, it hopefully won't be long before you're reading about a longer automated adventure on the open road.

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